Sam Dying

I happen to be working on the part of the book covering the last two years of Sam’s life. Not only did a lot happen during this time (1783–1784), but there is a fair bit written by various witnesses. During the last year of his life, for example, Sam lost one of his closest friends, Hester Lynch Thrale, because he stubbornly refused to accept the man she had chosen as her new husband. The last letters between them are heartbreaking.

We also know a lot about Sam’s literal last days, more specifically the last three weeks of his life when he was very ill and ultimately died. A friend named John Hoole kept a written account of the visits he paid to Sam and of the conversations between them. It’s all fascinating to read, though you can feel the inexorable decline to death as the details of the visits come through, and as the pages to read in the book get fewer.

A snippet from a page of Journal Narrative Relative to Doctor Johnson’s Last Illness Three Weeks Before His Death, Kept by John Hoole, ed. O M Brack, Jr. (Iowa City: Windhover Press, 1972)

He started to get really ill in December 1783. He had the idea to form another club (the Essex Head Club, named after the pub) where he could gather with friends in order to debate ideas over lots of drink and food, but it soon fell apart. He and a couple of the former members of a previous club did have one meeting, but the ambience was a little too placid for Sam. They talked about being old, and the evening not only was too “tender” and “melancholy,” but they just had a meal, finished up with coffee, and broke up early to go home. It wasn’t the robust conversation and debate well past midnight that Sam was used to and preferred.

Things go well for the first couple of meetings, but on or around the night of the third meeting, Saturday, December 13, Sam becomes sick. One source says that he actually suffers a coronorary thrombosis (a clot inside one of the blood vessels of the heart). In any case this is his last Essex Head meeting for the next couple of months, as the illness is serious enough to keep him out of commission. It’s not just the result of eating too much food and having a little too much to drink. He is actually laid up at home, not going out to any club or anywhere, and in painful recovery.

Things are up and down for much of 1784, but the account by Hoole concentrates on visits he made between Saturday, November 20, to the day of Sam’s death on Monday, December 13, around 7 p.m. I quote from Hoole’s account and make some comments in my podcast …

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